On Saturday December 8, John Ashbery, hailed by Harold Bloom as “America’s greatest living poet,” read from his new collection of poems Quick Question (Ecco 2012), released this week, in front of a filled-to-capacity auditorium at the New School. Now 85 and with as much wit, perspicacity, and knack for le mot juste as ever, Ashbery started with the first poem from the book, “Words to that Effect,” an inquisitive, inviting poem, and went on to read over a dozen more. After reading the title poem, he read “The Short Answer,” which has the wonderful line, “Because if it’s boring in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.” Ashbery disclosed that the line had been said to him by Susan Sontag more than thirty years ago while the two were in Warsaw. They were discussing the prospect of going to a Japanese opera one evening. He added in deadpan, “It’s something I think about almost every day when confronted with something that might be boring. Which happens.”
After the reading, Ashbery and David Lehman conversed on such topics as Sir Thomas Browne; the German Romantic poet, Friedrich Hölderlin; their mutual dislike for the word “unpack;” and how the hero of Ashbery’s poems might be characterized as the English language, particularly the American version of it. And indeed, on this last point, Quick Question is no exception. In this collection, Ashbery’s poems are infused with a talkative—sometimes remembering, sometimes wondering—but always sharp and engaged tone that is deeply concerned with, and interested in, what it’s like to be alive in the twenty-first century, “somewhere in America.” And it is precisely this voice, brought to life in the language of Ashbery’s poems, that ends up speaking so much to the ceaseless, un-capturable present—the right now—Tom Healy had pinpointed as crucial to Ashbery’s work in his illuminating introduction of the poet.
The event also offered an opportunity for Robert Polito, who directs the Writing Program at the New School, sponsors of the event, to display a montage of images from the extraordinary ASHLAB project, which entails the digital mapping and annotating of Ashbery’s house in Hudson, New York. Ultimately, the night belonged to the release of Quick Question, a collection of poems that, as one of the poems’ titles suggests, resists arrests of all sorts, yet at the same time invites the reader to “not dwell on a situation, but to dwell in it.”